Original release: November 1st 2002
Running time: 113 minutes
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston
When is a zombie movie not a zombie movie? When it’s Danny Boyle’s digitally shot post-apocalyptic nightmare featuring new horror monsters The Infected. If, like me, you have a strong affection for the zombie horror sub-genre, the thought of running zombies could go either way. Some will cry it’s not necessary; that zombies are meant to shuffle and the scares take a back seat to the social commentary. Others, me included, saw Boyle’s sprinting Infected as the logical evolution of the sub-genre and slapped our collective foreheads. Why had no one come up with this before?
When I saw the trailer for 28 Days Later with its promise of speedy zombie-style Infected people in over-run Britain, I leapt at the chance of the thrills that would no doubt ensue. Not only is this a zombie film set on my home turf, but these ‘zombies’ actually looked bloody terrifying with the emphasis on the bloody.
With Danny Boyle, director of Trainspotting (1996), behind the film, it also suggested the social commentary would unlikely be lost. Boyle gives us what Kyle Bishop calls ‘faster, more feral zombie creatures, keeping the monsters alive rather than dead’ and suggests that audiences were so impressed that they ‘responded as if the genre were new, instead of just newly re-visioned’¹.
Unlike many zombie films, 28 Days Later quickly suggests a realistic and relevant cause for the outbreak. In the opening scene, animal rights activists break into a facility where chimps are being force fed a diet of images of social disorder, violence, rage and destruction. This can be seen as a reference to one of Boyle’s cited influences, Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) which similarly features ‘the effect of cinematic violence on a test subject who cannot look away’ (Browning, 2011, p.47) ².
The chimps now have the ‘rage’ virus which a scientist quickly explains is highly contagious through blood transfer. No sooner than this nugget of information is unleashed does all hell break loose. A chimp is freed by the activists and one attack leads to the transfer of the viral infection to the humans. It’s all downhill from here.
28 days later, Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bike courier awakes naked in a deserted hospital, scrawny and confused. He wanders London in some of the most effective shots of the entire film, completely alone and surrounded by absolutely no sign of life. Boyle and crew took these gorgeous, surreal shots by stopping traffic for minutes at a time and rising early to get shots before rush hour, still an impressive feat considering the modest budget. Bishop argues these scenes ‘depicting deserted metropolitan streets, abandoned human corpses, and gangs of lawless vigilantes have become more common than ever, appearing on the nightly news as often as on the movie screen’ (p.18) ¹.
Just as Jim is introduced to the Infected as they emerge from nowhere, he’s rescued by the Molotov cocktails from other survivors who save him from certain death, or at least infection. Along with Selena (Naomie Harris), they meet more survivors and hear a broadcast offering sanctuary with a military unit.
From here, 28 Days Later follows many of the familiar zombie sub-genre conventions. Bishop (2009) lists these protocols as ‘not only the zombies and the imminent threat of violent deaths, but also a post-apocalyptic backdrop, the collapse of societal infrastructures, the indulgence of survivalist fantasies, and the fear of other surviving humans’ (p.20).
Jim, Selena and father and daughter Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) begin a road trip to the safe haven near Manchester that the army appears to offer. There are more scenes of deserted motorways and Infected attacks along the way but the film really hits its stride once they reach the so-called safety of the army base.
Like in George A. Romero’s 1968 seminal zombie classic, Night Of The Living Dead, the threat of the monsters suddenly pales in comparison to the threat posed by other survivors.
The soundtrack and cinematography are superb, perfectly complementing the content of the shots and narrative. Boyle returned after the disappointing The Beach adaptation and after experimenting ‘with lightweight digital cameras in collaboration with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’ (Browning, 2011, p.2) and shot a distinctive and instinctive looking film that may not have the budget of his previous feature, but certainly packs more thrills. The six minutes of mayhem and carnage set to the grand tension mounting score of John Murphy’s In the House – In a Heartbeat is as immediate and visceral as horror cinema gets. Jim finally releases the inner brutality of all men when he’s tasked with protecting his friends and Boyle makes it ambiguous whether he’s infected with the rage virus himself.
Even if you balk at the ‘zombie’ label, the sub-genre would never be the same again. With 28 Days Later and the Romero parodying Shaun Of The Dead (2004) soon following, zombies became either comical or thrillingly fast. Try comparing the zombies of Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead (2004) remake to the Romero original. The satire might be blunted but the thrills are dangerously sharpened. 28 Days Later has social commentary for those that seek it, but like Boyle’s very best films, the forward momentum is delivered with the furious pace of one of the Infected.
Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.
If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.